Livermore, California October 2001

New Life for Moore's Law

After four decades of remarkably steady progress, advances in computer-chip technology seemed in danger of slowing. Not anymore
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Interstate 580 connects Oakland, on San Francisco Bay, with Stockton and the farming towns of California's Central Valley. Heading east from Oakland, I-580 crosses the modest Coastal Range at the Altamont Pass. Altamont was famous a generation ago as the site of a Rolling Stones concert that turned into a riot. Now it features an eerie conjunction of two different kinds of "farming." Herds of cattle graze among thousands of pylons and derricks supporting giant propeller-shaped wind turbines—components of the world's largest "wind farm." When wind roars through the pass, the blades all turn, generating nearly enough electricity to power a city the size of San Francisco.

A series of low white buildings nearby adds to the sense that the area has been taken straight from a Back to the Future movie. These buildings, in the town of Livermore, house two national laboratories—Lawrence Livermore and the California branch of Sandia—where classified work on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy has been under way for decades. Usually the labs are anything but welcoming. Visitors cannot bring laptops or cell phones onto the premises; airplanes are restricted from flying overhead. But one day last spring the fences surrounding the laboratories were decorated with balloons, like a house proclaiming a child's birthday party, and hand-lettered signs directed visitors to a celebratory reception. The occasion was the announcement of a technical achievement that may have surprising economic and political consequences.

The celebration was for the room-sized Engineering Test Stand—the first working prototype of a new system for producing semiconductor chips. What makes the Engineering Test Stand special is its use of "extreme ultraviolet" light, or EUV. In the thirty-plus years since the first mass production of computer chips, progress has been defined as the ability to fit more and more circuits into increasingly smaller spaces. This has been accomplished mainly by devising finer and finer tools for etching circuits onto the surface of a chip. Just as a fine-point pen can put more words into a given space than a Magic Marker can, so the steady refinement of etching machines, or "steppers," has allowed the number of circuits per chip to go from a few thousand in the 1970s to tens of millions today.

However, throughout the past decade each move toward a better, finer stepper increased worries about how many more moves were possible. The fundamental limit to the size of circuits on a chip is tied to the wavelength of light used to etch the circuits. Existing chips were approaching that limit. X-ray beams have much shorter wavelengths than visible or ultraviolet light, but they are too destructive to be practical in etching. This is where EUV comes in.

EUV, which exists in the realm between visible light and x-rays, is a sort of domesticated x-ray. Its wavelength is short enough to allow the creation of extremely small circuits, and it is easier to work with than x-rays. But not that easy: EUV beams can't be transmitted through normal air, which absorbs them, and they can't be magnified or focused with normal lenses, which weaken and distort them.

The machine celebrated at Livermore works around these limitations. It transmits EUV beams through a vacuum, and it focuses them with extraordinarily smooth mirrors—ones whose surfaces have no irregularity greater in width than an atom. The wavelength of EUV is about a twentieth that of the light used in current steppers. Over time this should allow EUV lithography to create chips that have more than twenty times as many transistors as today's models and that run thirty times as fast.

From the archives:

"The New Old Economy: Oil, Computers, and the Reinvention of the Earth" (January 2001)
"Knowledge, not petroleum, is becoming the critical resource in the oil business" the author writes in this firsthand account of how technology is stretching the bounds of finitude. By Jonathan Rauch

The development of the EUV machine is the tech industry's equivalent of the discovery of a vast new oil reserve. To put it in the industry's own terms, it amounts to an extension of the principle known as Moore's Law. The modern computer and electronics industries have differed from most others in continually offering entirely new products—digital cameras, cellular phones—and continually driving down the price of what's already for sale. Behind these achievements lies Moore's Law. This is the assertion, by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, that the computing power available on a given chip (or, in a variant, the power available for a given price) will double every eighteen months. To imagine this principle in any other context is to understand how remarkable it is: suppose that cars got twice as much mileage, or dropped by 50 percent in price, every year and a half.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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